Red Lion at Cropredy – a canal inn with a literary history

The Red Lion at Cropredy lies close to, but not on, the Oxford Canal. Although this village inn predates the canal, it is so close to it that it must be regarded as a “canal inn”. There are signs for it all along the canal through the village and you will find it right next to the church, just above Cropredy Lock. We have enjoyed some good food there over the years and invariably tasted good beer. However, recently a number of different landlords have looked after the place and our experiences have been a bit variable.

My reason for posting about the Red Lion is to highlight its particular position within canal literature, because, to put it simply, it may look a modest and almost unassuming pub but some famous literary figures have “popped in for a pint” over the last hundred years.

The first I would like to mention is E Temple Thurston. I am fortunate enough to own a first edition of his famous “Flower of Gloster” book, published in 1911, which relates his journey by horse-drawn narrowboat along the Oxford Canal, the River Avon and the Thames and Severn Canal. The books opens with the author’s attempts to hire a boat in Oxford and very soon he and his boatman Eynsham Harry are on their way north along the Oxford Canal. Chapters relate their adventures further south at Shipton-on Cherwell and Somerton, but it is not long before they reach Cropredy. There are no less than four (admittedly short) chapters that relate to their visit to Cropredy and there are several charming drawings (see above). In fact one of the few colour illustrations in the book is of Cropredy and the view up the street past the Red Lion (see below). Then there is the chapter titled “The Red Lion –  Cropredy” 
Cropredy, c 1911 from "Flower of Gloster"
Temple Thurston was obviously charmed by it. As he points out, “To the gentlest breeze, a red sign-board swing outside, adding another instrument to the orchestra of sounds which are inseparable from a country village” There was sawdust on the floor and pints of ale on a trestle table and Temple Thurston received a warm welcome from the regulars. He played darts (for ale) with the locals but he was obviously unfamiliar with the game judging by his remarks. He enthusiastically states “is there any club in Britain where upon your first entrance, old members would treat you with such good comradeship as this?”

My second literary visit to the Red Lion concerns a voyage by canoe, again from Oxford, by that pioneer of canoeing William Bliss. I recently obtained a first edition of Bliss’s “The Heart of England by Waterway” which is subtitled “A Canoeing Chronicle by River and Canal”. It was published in 1933 and reports on a series of journeys Bliss took, mostly by canoe but also by rowing boat, over the period from the late 1890s to the 1930s. He records arriving in Cropredy (probably in the late 1920s) and going into the Red Lion for a drink. The description of the episode in the inn starts with him and his companion climbing up two stone steps and lifting the latch to the front door. The same two steps are still the main way into the inn so visiting the pub today you will literally follow in the footsteps of Bliss. He then goes on to record an amusing conversation that he overheard and joined in whilst in the bar.  The conversation is written in the vernacular which makes it difficult to follow at first attempt. Maggie suggested that I try reading it as Pam Ayres might to get my head around some of the phrases and it actually helped. 

The gist of the conversation was that the two local drinkers had a dislike of a local parson. The locals, George Lacey and Oakley, didn’t like paying the church tithe but their biggest gripe was about bell-ringing. It appears that about 15 years earlier a new parson arrived and refused to supply beer to the bell ringers during their practice sessions. The bell ringers considered that after two hours thirsty work they deserved it. The parson wouldn’t consider supplying alcohol in a House of God so they decided to go on strike (although Bliss doesn’t use those words). The bells remained silent and the parson eventually “wore hisself out” and died. Bliss proffered the thought to the two drinkers that he was an inconsiderate person.  Lacey retorted that he was inconsiderate to the end because he died on the hottest day of the year and Lacey, being sexton, had to dig his grave in heavy Oxford clay. Inconsiderate in life and inconsiderate in death was George Lacey’s epitaph to the man.

It appeared that the parson at the time of Bliss’ visit was more reasonable but Lacey had had to promise not to let the ringers get drunk. He is quoted as saying to the new parson “if any one takes a drop too much, I’ll knock him arse-over-tip down them belfry steps with my own fist.” I gather he said that in some jest.

The third of my literary visits to the inn was made in 1939 by Tom and Angela Rolt. It was on the first day of their epic voyage of discovery through the canals of the English Midlands which was recorded in Tom’s seminal book, Narrow Boat. In part one Rolt covers their preparation for the voyage and Cressy being refitted at Tooley’s Yard in Banbury.  Rolt speaks highly of Flower of Gloster when describing their planning and had a copy of the book on his shelf; maybe that is what encouraged him to visit the Red Lion. Part two opens with Cressy leaving Banbury on the 27th July 1939 and heading up the Oxford Canal towards Cropredy. George Tooley accompanied them to Cropredy, where they moored up just above the lock, and then caught the bus back to Banbury. Tom & Angela walked up to the Red Lion and “found a village inn of the best type which has escaped both stuffy Victorianism and the olde-worlde reconstruction”.  They drank beer drawn straight from the wood and tried to decipher a puzzle card which was on the wall. In Narrow Boat the card is recorded as being yellowed by tobacco smoke and reading:

Here’s to Pa!nds Pen Da S
O CI alh OUR in  ha?
Les Smi rT Ha!
ND Fu nle T fr;
i E nds HIPRE ign B eju, St. an
d Kin, dan Devil sPE,Ak of N One.

Underneath was NB. NO TEACHING ONE ANOTHER TO READ THE ABOVE UNDER FORFEITURE OF A QUART OF THE LANDLORD’S BEST ALE. I will follow Rolt’s example and not give away the meaning of the puzzle.

That evening the Rolts had their first meal afloat. Ian Mackersey in Tom Rolt and the Cressy Years states that it was roast leg of lamb. In Narrow Boat it is referred to as “a veritable banquet in such circumstances and surroundings”.

Looking to the future, let us hope the Red Lion flourishes. Under its current management there is no apparent evidence of the inn’s canal heritage but readers of this post will, at least, be aware of its unique place in waterways literature.